Tag Archives: GMing

FGLE Chapter I, GM Retrospective

How Did It Go?

Overall, I felt pretty positive about this adventure. I felt comfortable behind the screen, throughout, for the most part. I didn’t have to struggle with the players to get them from Point-A to Point-B. There were some missteps along the way, but I think I learned from them, so the experience wasn’t wasted.

Things That I Felt Had Gone Well
  • I did quite a lot of worldbuilding for this campaign, and it didn’t go to waste. I had specific pieces of information I wanted to impart, and other than the accidental skipping of the herald at the beginning, I managed to hit all the high points I intended. My preparations helped give the world a solid, not squishy feel.
  • I’m getting better at improvisation. I was following YouTube advice to never say “I don’t know,” which meant being prepared for improvisation (if that’s possible), and I can’t think of an instance where it failed me.
  • I felt like the humorous tone worked and was well-received. I was worried the “Is that all of you?” running-joke had gone unnoticed until someone finally commented during the last session.
  • I consider the experiment of using a hidden, communal pool of Plot Points to have been a success. Though they didn’t end up using half of the pool, we didn’t end up with the usual of one or two players burning through them all while the rest hoard them.
Things That I Felt Had Gone Less Well
  • The Paragon/Renegade mechanic was intended to be used, but the players forgot about it. I intentionally didn’t prompt them, either—it really needs to be the player’s idea, not mine. I wasn’t sure the mechanic was a good fit anyway, and since it didn’t get used, I’ll just drop it from now on. No big deal.
  • I was disappointed with the way the players didn’t seem to fully engage with the world in some instances. I have mentioned before how, when giving out mission information, I had intentionally left out details so as to encourage interaction, but questions weren’t asked (much). But there is also the matter of the ride-along NPC, Aidin, who had a backstory and all, but none of the players/characters ever bothered to engage with him in any meaningful way. One would be justified in blaming the players for an atypical lack of PC-curiosity, but the GM does share that blame for failing to provide enough reason to engage. Sadly, I have neither explanation nor remedy at the moment.
  • Players “going passive” is a peeve of mine as GM. They’ll sit idle until the GM spoon-feeds them the next plot-point or mindlessly follow whichever player will speak up. Sometimes a player that is normally a “contributor” will clam up for no apparent reason—I’ve caught myself doing it as player from time to time. It’s an old issue that every GM has to deal with, and I’ve learned to live with it over the years. More recently, I’ve been heeding online advice to avoid attempting to “correct” it, as it’s just how some folks enjoy the game. Overall, it wasn’t a big problem in this adventure, but it did happen occasionally, and it bugged me when it did. I wouldn’t even bring it up, but I’m beginning an effort to understand why it happens, and maybe figure out what those players need in that moment to get them to re-engage.
  • I’ve always had a problem with running large groups. Even with only six (my usual maximum) here, there were instances where I noticed a player would be typing his “story” in chat, but it was ultimately lost to the lengthy verbal discussion going on at the time. I was fortunate in this case that a couple of our players took a break, or the group would have been even bigger—next time, this may not be the case.
Things That I Need To Get Better At
  • I usually enjoy when a player wants to do something crazy; I try to encourage out-of-the-box thinking. But my neurotic nature causes me to point out all the ways it can’t work; I have an unconscious tendency to shoot it down. Following online advice, I’ve been trying to say “Yes” or “Yes, but…” rather than “No” as often as possible. I don’t think I quite got there, but I was trying.
  • I caught myself trying to prevent a PC from accomplishing this-or-that on an occasion or two (in some cases, with no valid reason I could determine afterward). This goes along with the “wanting” problem I was dealing with in the latter half of the adventure, which I detailed at length in another post already. Lesson learned, hopefully.
  • Another bit of online advice I was attempting to follow is to never tell the player what their character thinks or does. The “right” thing to do is to give them the facts and conditions and let the player announce the character’s reaction. I have to fight this sometimes; it’s harder than it sounds. It’s only a minor point, but it still needs work.
  • I’ve said before (offline, at least) that nearly every disagreement at the table is the result of some sort of miscommunication. So I use a lot of images. It gets everyone on the same page regarding what’s there or not, especially for combat/action scenes where those details become more important. Even so, there were instances where I left out key information the players needed to make proper decisions until late in the process. I need to make a better effort to pause the action and describe all the particulars, especially as they relate to decision-points of the encounter, before the PCs commit to their actions. On a similar note, we’ve had differing opinions about appropriate “cinematic” behaviors, and a lack of prior agreement results in occasional actions that I have to say “No” to. It’s surprisingly difficult to communicate what should be allowed or not, but that discussion is something that needs to occur, before the game (not in the middle of combat).
  • Player agency has always been a goal of mine as designer of an adventure or campaign, hence my usual focus on “sandbox” mechanics, or “emergent” stories at least. As a part of that focus, my intention was to place the major NPCs into the world, and give them motivations to pursue, rather than a script to follow. This really didn’t come up until the latter half of the adventure—the townies and mercs were mostly unscripted. I suppose the idea worked out, but I don’t know if this limited run is really the best example of its efficacy. Next time should be the real test.
In the Future

My expectation is that it will be quite a while before my (full-length) turn behind the screen will come up again. This campaign might be ideal for a one-shot here and there, though. Additionally, the Core Group is going to be playing a remastered version of Return to the Keep on the Borderlands in Generica setting, which I expect to give me more bits to fill out as it goes along, while I try to spare a brain-cycle or two for the next series.

FGLE Chp I:VI, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream


There wasn’t a lot to accomplish in this session, knowing it was the wind-down for the adventure. It went according to plan, for the most part. Other than the potential duel, I avoided any crunchy encounters or combat; it was mostly just narrative.

  • Bearing the last session in mind, I recognized beforehand that I really “wanted” the PCs to have the conversation with the mercenary commander. It was important exposition about the world, and the political situation. I had to make some adjustments to the plan to keep from painting myself into a corner again. My chief concern was typically-aggressive PCs shooting him in the face before he got to say anything. My saving grace came in the form of his knowing they were coming—both magically, and based on Marthyn’s and other incoming soldiers’ testimonies—which led to the “white flag.” He had some magical defenses in place in case they didn’t play along.
  • In the first session, I lampshaded a potential duel-challenge for the lives of the prisoners through Aidin’s exposition, but when the opportunity presented, I wasn’t going to remind Dustan’s player—it needed to be his idea. I think the exposition was too far back, though, and he had forgotten about it by this point. Plus, there was a bit of confusion regarding the commander’s capabilities based on my description—the player got the impression that the rod he was wearing was a powerful magic item, not just his “focus,” and decided it was best not to cross him. I did a fair amount of spell-related brainstorming for the duel and I didn’t get to use it. It’s too bad, but I can always save that for later.
  • The council meeting in Northelderland was a second chance to get the PCs involved in politics, and set up the potential for a Patron or alternative to the Heroes’ Guild.
  • Since Maykew’s player had purchased “Waygon” (the donkey) as an Ally early in the adventure, I decided those points spent would represent “trade” for its purchase from the innkeep—for example, Trading Points for Cash—but the player’s in-game choice was better, and in-character. The “llama” thing was a hilarious surprise, though—it’ll be good for some laughs in the future.
  • All PCs were granted Rank 1 for free—promoted out of Initiate of the Guild. The Coins they earned will be good for future “favors” by the Guild. The original plan was to also give out a block of general-purpose CPs at the end of the adventure, but I decided, late, to defer those until the beginning of the next adventure.
  • I was concerned the loot take-home would be too little, but it turned out better than I expected. Even so, it will only cover Cost of Living for a month or so (or less, for the higher Status characters). I’m still not certain how best to handle loot without having every bad guy in the realm carry his life savings in a belt-pouch. The rule-of-thumb I remember is that it should generally be enough to continue operating, covering Cost of Living and recovery of expended supplies, until the next outing.
Post-Game Player Debrief

After the adventure was over, I kept everyone online to discuss the eventual continuation of the campaign while I still had their attention.

  • I wanted to shoot for a more “sandbox/hex-crawl” type of campaign, but the group seemed to lean a little less that direction—more “multiple-choice/branching-path” type, instead. Close enough.
  • We’ve got potential recurrences of Aidin, Mallus the Clever, and the court of Northelderland. The players didn’t want to take advantage of the Arl’s offer of employment just yet, though that may be a thing further down the road. He can be expected to request the aid of the Company of the Bere later.
  • The players also weren’t interested in “realm management” for the time being. That’s fine. I’d still like to incorporate that sort of thing eventually—get into more of the Crusader Kings stuff—but it’s not a big deal right now. They need to build up a bit first, anyway.

Side note: This adventure marks the first time in a quarter-century of my GMing that I’ve had six back-to-back sessions with no absences and no breaks. Just lucky, I guess.

See the next blog post for my overall post-adventure thoughts and lessons learned.

FGLE Chp I:V, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

A Cautionary Tale

This session began with a big fight for which I had prepared a great deal…but, it seems, not enough for what the players would end up actually doing.

What I Had Planned

It was to be a tough fight, on the surface. Trained, battle-experienced mercenaries: 12× Halberdiers, 8× Crossbows, 8× Pavisers (shield-bearers). Almost 4× the PCs’ numbers. The bridge was 4yds wide, which let the halberds advance in three ranks of four, with Reach 3. The mercs had Combat Reflexes, ST12 (which was 1pt under Min ST for the halberd, as it turned out, so “chopping” attacks were less accurate), the Teamwork Perk, and Crossbow Finesse (to pull ST14). The PCs would have to close through 3 reach-attacks to get into range to fight back. This is pretty standard fare for late-period Medieval to early-Renaissance armies. Normally they would probably be using pikes here, but this was a mobile, flanking unit—I figured the pikes would be a bit too heavy for that.

The PCs had a number of advantages, though. The mercs were as lightly armored as before, in layered cloth (with plate bascinets). The PCs had magic—I was expecting Dustan to use Windstorm or somesuch to frustrate the formation, which would have been devastating on its own. Plus the PCs had Plot Points, Extra Effort, and plain-old PC ingenuity. I knew in advance that Lëodan would be on the mercs’ side of the river in hiding, to pop up and start shooting them in the backs—the pavisers would fall back to cover the crossbows to the rear, which would engage the hidden archer(s), but that meant they wouldn’t be bothering the melée fighters. I was, frankly, worried the PCs would wipe the floor with them.

Aside from knowing about Lëodan, I had given the players the opportunity to sort out their tactics on the forum during the week. There was talk of gathering some hay-bales or equivalent to hide behind.

What Actually Happened

When the session got under way, it all came unraveled.

The players immediately deviated from the previously-discussed plan. Now there was a new one that involved a barricade made of miscellaneous stuff piled up, including a wagon, in the middle of the bridge. Of course, I had no idea how long it should take to construct such a thing, but it presented a bigger problem: the mercs would see this and, logically, refuse to go near such an obvious trap—in the modern Army, they would probably have called for the engineers to come breach the obstacle. Furthermore, the PCs on the bridge weren’t really hiding, but taking cover, making it also obvious that the obstacle was under guard. I had already established that fording/swimming the river was a no-go, and that going around would involve many hours of travel to rejoin the army. They had little option but to try to tear down the barricade and press through. (Again—how long?) Plus, whatever they did at the bridge would leave them completely vulnerable to a hidden Elvish archer to the rear, who would, Legolas-like, pick them off one-by-one until their morale completely broke. It was check-mate. But this fight was supposed to take up the whole session, beyond which I had minimally prepared. I was left with the choice of the mercs’ behaving illogically and getting massacred in an unnecessarily-messy combat sequence or ending the session several hours short. It seriously threw me off my rhythm—total brain-lock.

After taking an intermission to think it over, I still had no better ideas. I ended up going through the motions in a semi-narrative fashion, and took the mercs through the least-bad option. They attempted to tear down the barricade, got harassed by archer-fire, and eventually retreated after taking too many losses. I had the PCs make some attack rolls and such, but I didn’t bother tracking HP, or movement points, or specific timing. The melée-focused PCs didn’t even get involved. They won the day, though for me, at least, it felt…unearned—very unsatisfying. The players didn’t quite see it as the catastrophe I did—almost always the case. (See below.)

Lessons Learned

It wasn’t all that long after the session had ended that I realized where it had all gone wrong. I wanted that fight to occur. I expected that fight to occur. (You might recall my previous caution against “assumptions.”) As a result, I put a lot of thought into the tactics and conditions, with little thought for the idea that it might not occur at all.. Were it not for that “desire” I would have had an alternative plan ready. I realized this very issue had bitten me multiple times already in this campaign so far, and was about to happen again in the next session.

Lesson: when you review your GMing plans, make note of any time you find yourself “wanting” something to happen and fix it. It’ll be easy to spot: you’ve probably put a disproportionate amount of effort into it. Any time the players say, after the game, that they, “felt like they didn’t have a choice” or “felt railroaded,” it’s because the GM wanted something to happen and forced the situation.

I didn’t have this problem quite so much in the early part of the adventure, because the a-b-c progression was fairly easy to follow. Go there, get info. Go there, get more info. But when the adventure reached the parts where that linear nature gave way, I started running into these little “losses of control”—and I hate losing control. This has been a problem for me since my first GMing attempt. I’ve had to re-learn this lesson over and over, but somehow it always creeps back in. It’s insidious.

I’ve been at this long enough that I, at least, didn’t try to force the direct confrontation. I have used a technique in the past of giving out a Plot Point, XP, or whatever, as a reward for “playing along”—I’ve done this specifically for “total party capture” situations, and it does work, but I don’t think it’s always the best solution. It was also later suggested that I could have started the session in media res, with the fight already in progress, which can also sometimes work, but is also less than ideal. You should never take away player agency.

Much later, it occurred to me that what I should have done was to give the mercs a Tactics roll. If they failed (which is quite possible—Tactics is a Hard skill, and they were of merely average intelligence), they would blunder into the trap. If they really borked the roll, they might even try to climb over the obstacle like complete fools. If were to make this roll known to the players, they could use Plot Points to force that failure. The dice would then have mercifully relieved me of my “logical objection,” though it would certainly have led to quite a mess. I suppose that’s Lesson 2 here: if the problem is that “they wouldn’t do that,” give them a chance to fail.

Ironic Counter-Perspective

As it happens, just a week prior, Ser Kenrick’s player had experienced the same sort of GMing catastrophe, for essentially the same reasons. I was a player in that one. Although I detected that something was a little off, I really didn’t see it as the disaster he declared it to be afterward. After coming to understand my own disaster, I see now that the players had no connection to the behind-the-screen drama besetting me, so of course, they didn’t react the way I did. Some comfort there, at least.

FGLE Chp I:IV, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

Lost in the Woods

GM Confidence: 3/5. It started a bit rough, though it ended well enough. The session reached the point where the adventure was a bit under-cooked, and I felt like it was starting to show.

Lëodan’s Last of the Mohicans Moment

Lëodan needed some proper spotlight time for the adventure. His running off on his own to track the enemy to its lair was the perfect opportunity. But I wanted to give it a little more substance than making a couple of rolls, dropping some clues, and moving on, like I expect one normally would.

  • I worked out a schedule for the day for all parties, including Mother Nature. He started around 02:00, still under a new moon, plus the thick fog. With his Night Vision 5, he wasn’t too bothered about the darkness.
  • I decided to front-load most of the die-rolls and crunchy bits, and describe the results without interruption afterward. I felt like that worked out.
  • I had expected the other PCs to get straight to the inevitable interrogation of their prisoners after last session’s fight. They didn’t (partly due to a misunderstanding about what languages they spoke, but the characters were also very tired). Were it otherwise, I had planned to swap the point-of-view back and forth between Lëodan’s and the interrogators’ matching discoveries. I wonder now if it would have been too confusing.
  • To get the other players involved in this solo outing, I had them come up with some obstacle for Lëodan to overcome as he ran. This was okay in theory, but I wasn’t quite prepared for what they might suggest, and it threw me out of rhythm, so I didn’t keep it up.
  • The rain was the result of a tarot draw: Sun, reversed—a loss of clarity; supported by Eight of Rods/Wands—a sudden onset. I gave him a Weather Sense roll before setting out, which he failed, so he wasn’t able to take any precautions. I figure being soaked like that in the cold should make one susceptible to catching a cold or something, but I didn’t find a rule for it, so I ignored it. I didn’t want to pile on anyway. (I had to research how rain and fog interacts—I don’t think I’ve experienced that personally.)
  • He decided to track at full speed (taking the -5). I realized afterward that I didn’t actually figure in his FP loss for hours of running—but I don’t think that broke anything. The penalty also applied to his Stealth, which affected his quarry’s detection distance.
  • He failed several more rolls in the course of things that caught me off-guard. After all the mods were tallied, he failed the Tracking roll; -10% speed. It failed enough that he missed the misdirection at the stream. (A player came up with the “stream” to jump as an obstacle, so I combined it with the one I already had in mind.) He critically failed his Navigation roll. I decided he would get lost on the way back. But the player decided, late in the process, to start leaving “markers.” This made it impossible (to his thinking) to actually get lost, and I fumbled my explanation of how it didn’t work a bit. In retrospect, (a) I should have made him describe the specific sort of markers he was leaving, and/or (b) say he forgot entirely to leave them, as the manifestation of his critical failure. It worked out okay, in the end, but I’m reminded again of my old saying: don’t ask for a roll if you’re not prepared for it to fail.
  • The encounter with the scouts upon his eventual return to the village was actually coincidental. He just happened to be returning around the time the scouts had been scheduled to be in position. He critically succeeded his Stealth attempts to get closer. According to my pre-calculated spotting distances, he would be on top of them before they could either see or hear him. Some good luck, finally.
In other news…
  • I had planned for the last session to either end sooner or get farther along. Since it did neither, I needed to fill out a bit, lest we start a big battle in the middle of the session and not be able to finish on time. So, I had to pad things out a bit for this one. But we needed to end a bit early for Ronnke’s sake, as he had another game scheduled immediately after, so that helped.
  • “Planning” amongst the PCs, in my gaming experience, is usually a lengthy and involved (and sometimes, tedious) process. I’ve learned to leave the players plenty of room to do it when needed. The players didn’t immediately dive into it like I had expected, and I worried a bit that I wouldn’t be able to stretch things out. It sorted itself out, though.
  • I had a few good opportunities to play with Ser Magnus, one of which Ser Kenrick’s player set up nicely (without realizing).
  • The Lord-Vicar’s arrival was a bit of padding. I had intended to bring him in at the end of the battle or something, or perhaps earlier if they sent for the Arl’s aid. I did not intend to cast him; he was a side character they weren’t expected to interact with much. His new larger role warranted more detail, though—from the players’ reactions to his arrival, I’d say I choose well. He’s gonna be some fun to play.
  • Maykew’s player rolled his second success on his unknown father’s Secret. Hence the witness of Brother Rikall.

I managed to stretch things out just long enough. We ended on time, wrapping up with the arrival of the mercenary army and the reveal of the flanking element the PCs will be fighting next week.

FGLE Chp I:III, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

Contact with the Enemy

GM Confidence: 4.5/5. The adventure is now into less well-defined territory, naturally bringing with it feelings of unpreparedness, but I was satisfied with the overall results.

This session started with a big fight, and I knew it would eat up most of the session—and I was right. Some points-of-interest:

  • I didn’t have any grand tactical plan in mind for the “goblins” here. They were just going to creep in to the town, get bounced along the way, and after putting up a fight, fall back across the bridge. But they couldn’t see in the dark any better than the PCs, and as a result of the PCs’ letting them slip past, they got caught in the middle of the square with “unknown fighters” covering nearly all the possible exits. The PCs made an Intimidate attempt, resulting a fighting retreat on the bandits’ part. There was only one outlet, though, and in the course of trying to reposition themselves, they got caught in the back. They couldn’t make use of their superior numbers at all. It was a legitimate rout. There really wasn’t anything I could do. Well played, PCs.
  • The players finally started using some of their pool of Plot Points; one to give the first bonfire a kick in intensity, fixed a couple of bad rolls, and one for some cinematic behaviors on the part of the Elf.
  • I gave the bandits a “Will to Fight” score of 6. Essentially, that’s the number of turns of “losing” they would endure before deciding it wasn’t worth it anymore—and by losing, I mean taking more overall damage than they dished out. They didn’t make it that far before the matter was determined by the circumstances. None of the PCs were even touched.
  • The imagination of individual participants in an RPG is effectively impossible to “synchronize”—virtually every disagreement I’ve ever witnessed or participated in at the table has either been about rules, or a failure to communicate the terrain/conditions. I try to use images as often as I can, or reference some sort of shared experience—usually movies. In this session, there was some inevitable disagreement regarding who should be able to see/do what in the darkness—my understanding of how dark it was would inevitably differ from others’ and that’s really difficult to communicate without a visual reference. I don’t have a good solution for this just yet, but I continue to seek one. I did, at least, communicate the visibility conditions to the group on the message boards during the week, so it didn’t catch anyone by surprise—I know how irritating it is to discover these things at the last moment.
  • There was a similar dissonance regarding what constitutes an acceptable level of “cinematic behavior”—but without a well-defined “line,” how can one really say when one has crossed it? Also a work-in-progress.
  • Lëodan is a bit of a wild-card; due to the late introduction, I don’t really know the character well enough to predict potential behavior. I figured he’d be running around solo, and though I had in mind his running off immediately into the darkness on his own as a worst-case, I didn’t actually expect him to, and it caught me a little flat-footed. I think it will work out, though.

Gentleham, the NPG

See The Village Model

I’ve been using this model behind-the-scenes for a long time. It’s good for keeping NPC groups organized, and easier to manage than a relationships flowchart (a typical solution for the same thing) in my opinion. I haven’t had a great deal of opportunity to properly test its utility in-game yet, and here is another chance, in a bit less than “thorough” application. Here are some non-spoiler details:


S: Objective; D3; Char: Typical helpless Medieval townies

Tier1 Elements

Master Walder; DR/Bss
Concept: The Coward/Abandoner; hopeless downer

Tier2 Elements

Eldyr Simpelman; CR/Wiz
Tropes: Wasteland Elder
Concept: Tough old bird; seen it all—straight-shooter

Patron Sermyn; DP/Trb
Concept: The Pacifier/Capitulator; town’s peacemaker, total non-violent

So how does it work here? Mr. Walder is the only Tier1, so he’s going to end up as the PCs’ primary point-of-contact for getting things done in the village, and the one they have to convince to play along with their schemes. As “Destructive-Reactive” he’ll be passive, to the point of being a potential problem—PCs will have to encourage him to act. Ptn. Sermyn is “Destructive-Proactive” and the “Village Troublemaker”—his role is pretty easy to imagine. And Eldyr Simpelman is the voice-of-reason to balance Ptn. Sermyn’s shenaniganry—and knowing the players, the most-likely to be actually listened to.

The PCs have interacted with the townies only a little so far. Next session will probably be a better test.

FGLE Chp I:II, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

Cruise Control

GM Confidence: 5/5. In spite of a couple of curve-balls, everything proceeded more-or-less as expected.

A few points worth noting:

  • I made the currently-unknown (to the characters) facts surrounding the familial ties between Rayna, Kenrick and Maykew an official Secret. But while Kenrick and Maykew both have a roll, it’s the father’s Secret they’re checking against, for potential uncovering. For this session, Maykew rolled a success; hence the “Oldtown” revelation.
  • After the near-panic last session surrounding the party’s slower-than-expected progress, and my compensatory timeline adjustments, they pulled another surprise on me. We had already decided during the week to use one of their Preparation Points to bring in a pack animal (which Maykew’s player decided to go with the Ally instead), which would improve the situation. But at game-time, Dustan’s player decided to cast Quick March on everyone, doubling their travel speed—which basically had them moving ~50 miles in an extended day’s travel, which put them back on the original timing and would force me to set the calendar back again. As a result, some of the road content I had planned for that “extra” day got skipped—I didn’t want to shove all of it into the shorter period, lest it drag things out. I’ll just save those for later, maybe.
  • The party arrived at Nobleham after nightfall and were quartered in a castle guest room, but a couple of the PCs decided to wander around and talk to whomever was stirring. I didn’t actually prep for that—not the talking, but the wandering the castle at night part—but it wasn’t a big deal; I just ran with it. However, as it turns out, a side-effect of the Quick March spell is, at the end of the “day,” the Subject(s) immediately take -10 FP and must sleep—they really all should have collapsed as soon as the opportunity presented.
  • I really wanted the duel to be quick—I didn’t want to leave the other players thumb-twiddling for too long—and it worked out pretty well. Rayna got some good spotlight time.
  • In spite of specific attention-drawing in my notes, I still keep forgetting to mention the damned weather (pre-rolled per day from Dungeon Fantasy 16). Plus I always intend to use the lighting function in Fantasy Grounds but keep forgetting, as usual.
  • I found myself at a bit of a disadvantage having to describe the “goblin” visuals in the dark and fog. I really should have had an image to show there. I have one for next time now—problem solved, if a bit late.
  • When I started sorting out the calendar and figuring out the moon phases, I used the real-life current lunar situation on the starting date, and it just so happened to have the raid occur on the new moon—it wasn’t something I specifically planned to make things more difficult, though it certainly accomplishes that.

So, since there isn’t a lot to say about the way the session itself went, here’s a bit of worldbuilding…

The Court of Northelderland

See the wiki.

I had intended from the start to give the players a taste of the political, and route them through a “medieval court” on their way to the mission—I had set aside this court etiquette article years ago for this purpose and hadn’t managed the opportunity to use it yet. Originally it was an optional thing, but I really wanted them to see it, so I withheld some mission details at the start and required them to go to the Arl to get the rest. I had decided a long time ago—before the campaign shifted from the Core Group to Olympus—what sort of fellow the Arl would be, overall. The name, Gudrik: “Gud” is just an alternative spelling of “good” and the “-ric” suffix is Old English for “ruler”—with that clue, you can guess at some of the others’ meanings. The “casting” choice of William Hurt was very deliberate, primarily for his portrayal of Duke Leto in the Dune SyFy series, but I was lucky to find images of his part in The Countess. I had decided the Bredwelle family would be an older line that was becoming endangered.

Nobleham Castle is “played” by Inveraray Castle in Scotland. It was an image I found very early on, and I just kinda liked it, plus it’s fittingly small.

I started with tarot cards to generate the details for each step down a list of the Arl’s relationships: parents, self, siblings, spouse, children. This, as it turns out, has its advantages and disadvantages. A disadvantage was, for example, that I didn’t quite have a method for interpreting the number of children from the card draw, so I had to fudge that a bit. On the advantageous side, some of the results were especially interesting. For example, the “spouse” draw was Star (reversed)—could be interpreted as a hopeless situation, like an illness that won’t pass—leading me to her comatose state, which, due to the magical world, I made a magical illness that couldn’t be easily cured by a random cleric’s hand-wave. This makes his only son more important to him, and gives him a sympathetic motivation beyond his father’s incompetence. I had predetermined he would be having problems that would cause him to go to the Heroes’ Guild for help, but the cards gave me the “why,” and I was pretty happy with the results.

His privy council and vassals, along with some other conditions, were generated through picking an appropriate character from a run of Crusader Kings 2 (which is how later courts would be generated more-or-less in their entirety), with a bit of tweaking to work in the elements I had already generated—like his wife. Some weird contradictions provided some “colorful” characters, and I’m looking forward to further opportunity to show them off later. I’ve gotten into the habit of not “casting” NPCs that aren’t really important, and in this case, only the Arl was cast.

After those, it came down to dealing with the PCs’ eventual interactions with the court. I did a bit of research on the typical daily routine for such a ruler, and worked out a timetable, to determine what he would be in the middle of when they arrived—some times would be more suitable than others to interrupt. Then I took stock of the NPCs present and tried to find places to “show, not tell” their character, with an eye toward humor—some of the characters’ potential conflicts were pretty obvious, which was helpful. I expected the PCs to end up talking to people here and there and picking up some of the lore, and in the session, they did a little—I kinda hoped they would pry a little more, but I expect other opportunities, especially if the players decide to keep him on as a recurring Patron or something like that, which is entirely possible at this point.

FGLE Chp I:I, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

Contents May Shift During Takeoff…

GM Confidence: 4/5. I felt pretty good about the overall results, though there was definitely room for improvement.

We got a pretty late start, having to deal with last-minute character updates, first-time-campaign technical problems…nothing unexpected. I started out in media res with a to-the-death PvP melée, a “simulation” intended to get everyone acclimated to their new characters’ abilities (sadly, not everyone realized it was a simulation, so there was some confusion). It served its purpose, I think, but…

The Slap-Fight

Nobody did anything technically wrong here, but two of the characters ended up spending quite a few rounds swinging ineffectively at each other, mostly out of reach of the rest, either not hitting or being successfully defended against—they were a situational match, and would inevitably keep going back and forth like that until someone made a mistake or flubbed a roll. Afterward, it occurred to me that in a situation like that, where no ground is being gained or lost and the scene is threatening to drag on in an un-fun manner, the GM really needs to be ready to step in and shake things up. In our case, I just called off the fight before it was officially over; this was fine for the narrative. In the future, though, I figure I need to give some forethought to how I can speed up such situations; changing the scenery a bit, maybe (adding obstacles, expanding or contracting the boundaries, putting superior weapons within reach, etc.). In a mass-battle, having nearby units get involved is probably sensible. Just a couple of notes about dynamic scenery elements is probably sufficient.

Out of Rhythm

The misunderstanding regarding the simulation already had me a little off-balance. Once the story-proper got moving, I started making little mistakes that compounded the issue.

  • I was reading off some bits of dialogue—which I did not want to be reading in the first place—and to make it worse, stumbling a bit due to some dental work a few days prior
  • The players apparently expected to be given horses (or the equivalent) for the trip, though that was not the case—not sure why I didn’t see that coming, and I wasn’t quite prepared to respond
  • When the Grandmaster of the Guild asked if anyone had any questions about the mission, nobody did…which was weird; I intentionally left out details so they would have questions to ask, and they didn’t. Still not sure what broke down there.
  • The pre-travel prep section kinda fell into a minor bit of disarray. I had planned to use an initiative sequence and tokens on the map to track general positions—not to turn into something “tactical,” just to provide a bit of helpful organization. For whatever reason, I didn’t stick to the plan, and I ended up getting things out of order, and even skipping over the “town crier” bits I wanted to use because I couldn’t quite direct the traffic to it in a sensible manner
  • As we started processing their travel speed and such, I discovered they were going to be much slower than I had anticipated—Encumbrance woes—and that made me panic a little

It just got all jumbled, and if there’s one do-over I would want out of this session, that would be it.

Under Way, Finally

Once they got properly under way, things started to smooth out, but I was still dealing with the much-lower travel speed, which caused further headaches for me. The travel map uses 30-mile hexes as “a typical day’s travel,” but that was no longer accurate, and I couldn’t quite sort out where they would end the day—I have the week to sort that out, but at the time, it added to the overall confusion. As a further consequence, I ended up blanking on some of the road events I had planned.

Lucky Break: Rayna’s player had just added a Quirk-level Nightmares, which fires off only on a Crit Fail—and when they camped for the night, it actually triggered. It was great timing, prompted some in-character development, and will probably be the last time it happens 😛


All the above issues were pretty minor, and I don’t think the players really picked up on my panic—or they aren’t saying so. All told, it went pretty well for a first session of a new campaign. Lessons were learned, though, and that’s always good:

  1. Stick to the plan
  2. Keep it organized
  3. Go over your notes and find out where you’re making “assumptions” and fix them—think of the worst-case and prepare for it

S³M Chapter One GM Retrospective

Overall GM Confidence: (starting) 3, (ending) 5 of 5.

I have to say, I think it all went really well, in spite of some (mostly behind-the-scenes) shaky bits here and there. The players all seemed to be generally engaged and responsive throughout. The characters were all interesting in their own way, and meshed well together, and gave me plenty of basic hooks to work with. My mechanical experiments got enough actual-play that I can use to make later refinements.

Some points-of-interest, in no particular order:

  • Actually, this marks the first ever campaign I’ve run to see a direct continuation into a subsequent run. A couple have continued with an entirely different set of players/characters in some form or another; and the Replacement Miners might count as well, though it had a more-or-less “hard” ending before moving on to the Sabo Affair with new crewmembers and ship.
  • As the first campaign of mine to benefit from a proper wiki site, I have to say that I found it really helpful, as GM. What I don’t know is how helpful it was to the players.
  • My current Plot Points/advancement system got a good workout this time. It was well-received, as far as I know; players didn’t seem to mind the lack of per-session awards or improvement, and they did get a mid-chapter opportunity to upgrade a bit. Plot Points didn’t get used as much as I had intended/expected; I will be overhauling the system based on that experience. Relationships finally got its first real test, and although it did see some use, it wasn’t as central as I had hoped—I have some refinements in mind. Same for the Paragon/Renegade mechanic. Mild success overall, with some useful lessons learned that should make it shine next time.
  • My long hours of work on the ship model paid off in being able to easily visualize ship-board situations. I’m definitely glad I did that. Aside from some polish on the ship, I need to work on Tamborro Station for next time, since it’s a central part of the story, and a number of situations that developed during the campaign could certainly have benefited from better definition.
  • My GMing strategy of late of only working on a given session in the week prior turned out to be more of a hindrance than I liked this time around—too many of those weeks found me lacking the necessary motivation, focus or inspiration to get it done right, resulting in a few sessions of rather low confidence at the start. Next time, I intend to put together a more solid long-term plan before the run starts. The “Save the Station” theme didn’t quite get the attention it probably deserved; that will be remedied next time as well.
  • Be it luck or design, the players didn’t push me too hard, nor did they truly surprise or stump me. Good and bad. What I had wanted from the (very) beginning was a Traveller-like sandbox, but the lack of established setting details makes that especially difficult, when the players don’t know where to go next without my telling them. This isn’t necessarily “bad,” it just means running a different kind of campaign. Before the campaign officially started, I had the players “create” a number of locations to visit during the campaign; I just need to build the pathways to those locations and let them follow—they (will) already know these locations are important.
  • The only time I really got “stumped” as GM was at the end, when I decided it was time to wrap things up. I really wanted a “satisfying,” climactic wrap-up to the chapter but I needed to compress things a lot, and I wasn’t sure how to do it. Even at the eleventh-hour, I didn’t have a solution I was satisfied with, and I ended up winging it, with only a couple of basic points to hit. In play, my “A > B > C > D” became more of an “A > E > G > D” progression—a bit out of order, but I had enough spare-parts to make it work, and in the end, they arrived where and how I intended, and it all worked out—and rather nicely, to my surprise and delight.
  • I suppose my biggest disappointment, overall, was not being able to do more with Zennith, as an “inventor.” The player didn’t really press, but there were bits here and there where it could have been highlighted, and I don’t think I did a very good job. Better next time.
  • Rigil thankfully spared me the extra headache of doing all the write-ups myself; I just handled the formatting and graphics. I still intend to go back through them and add links to the wiki, and “explain” more for those not in-the-know.
  • I really wanted to be able to run this “indefinitely,” in theory; I wanted to beat my 12-session longest run (Outlanders), at least. Ultimately, I suppose I could have gone longer, but I was being pulled in different directions by many other projects and found myself really needing to put this one down, so I wrapped it up a bit earlier than I originally wanted. Given the usual length of campaign runs in this group, and the number of GMs/campaigns in the current queue, it’s going to be quite a while before my turn comes back around, but it will, and I have no doubts at this point that there will be a Chapter Two (barring unforeseen changes to the group).

To be continued… (For real this time. 😛 )

A One-Shot Across the Bow


GURPS Sea Dogs, Adventure ½


Another GM in my Saturday group found himself having to slap together a game from scratch with naught but the week before to prepare it, and it ended up working out pretty well, so I wondered if I could pull it off myself. Then the opportunity arose the week prior to this writing, with some upcoming absences from the regular game, and I decided to give it a shot.

I had been wanting to run (or play in) a proper age-of-sail campaign for decades (literally), and have been considering such a campaign for this group, as it has virtually no genre overlap with anyone else’s campaign. But I hadn’t actually put any effort into it yet, so I would be starting from scratch, with only the week to make it happen.


It took me a few days to finally settle on the basic storyline: a small insurance company based out of Port Royal was about to pay out on a client’s ship lost to pirates, when said client received a ransom demand for the safe return of the ship’s crew—an unusual occurrence—through which the company was able to track down the pirate and his expected location. It would be far cheaper for the company to send some guys with a particular set of skills to retake the ship than to pay out for the loss.

My old Sea Dogs campaign that never saw production started in Nassau, which was also the primary location in the Starz TV series, Black Sails, and a notable spot in the Assassin’s Creed IV game. I chose to set the game there, as there should be plenty of material to work with. The target ship was a 100-ton sloop called McGuffin’s Prize, based on the ship in GURPS Supporting Cast: Age of Sail Pirate Crew for its GURPS 4e stats, captained by the silver-tongued Hans Olof, accompanied by his first-mate, a large African fellow named Chwengwe. Their opposition was a no-name French pirate called La Cage, who captained the brig, Antagonist (which I had to fudge some stats for, in the event they were needed); a brig was featured prominently in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, the Interceptor, for plenty of visual references. Captain Olof had convinced the pirates to send the ransom note in order to keep them from killing himself and the crew, knowing that it was highly unlikely that the ransom would actually be paid. Also noteworthy, La Cage had been recruiting crew for the new ship.

To expedite the inevitable planning session, I would use a mechanic I had employed once before, that is, “Planning Points”: a number of Impulse Buys for adjusting the tactical situation with the caveat that the changes had been “pre-planned.” I wanted to do a bit of social engineering in town and that sort of thing, but in order to keep it simple, and enough for one session only, I just stuck with a couple of combat encounters, which, with the planning that would involve, would be a tight fit.

For the characters, I really didn’t care too much what we ended up with. I was going to recommend GURPS Action templates until I remembered Pyramid 3/64 “Pirates and Swashbucklers” issue had a few Dungeon Fantasy “swashbuckler” templates. I created a basic character for everyone to use, at the 250-point DF standard; two of the players created their own, but they were both based on the same template. They were all Weapon Masters—serious badasses—and I knew they were going to wipe the floor (deck) with whomever they encountered.

Other minor points of interest:

  • I decided late in the process to use Nicholas Cage as the bad guy, thus named La Cage; I have a long-standing dislike of him as an actor (it’s nothing personal, really), and I like to work him into my campaigns to get punched in the face 😛
  • Rigil’s character was an homage to his now-retired Banestorm character, Gabriel
  • I had a hard time finding stats for the Antagonist. Low Tech has smaller and larger ships than this brig, but not the same, and 3e Vehicles has a smaller version of both the brig and sloop. I probably could have worked it out properly from Vehicles, but it wasn’t really worth the effort since I wasn’t planning any ship-to-ship combat (though a pursuit was possible).



I started the PCs off at sundown, approaching the handful of pirates holding watch over the ships’ boats on shore, the McGuffin and the Antagonist, anchored together around 75 yards out in the Nassau harbor, just off Potter’s Key. Just trailing the PCs was the former crew of the McGuffin which had been rescued some time before, led by Captain Olof and looking a bit worse for wear from a couple of months neglected in the pirates’ custody—they elected to hang back until the all-clear was given. The only PC with skill in Tactics made the roll, with the others attempting to support; the support didn’t amount to much, resulting in three Planning Points to spend, which they held back for later. One of the PCs brought some bottles of rum, and the four PCs walked right up to the sentries and offered to share, claiming to be recruits. The sentries were caught completely by surprise when their new buddies produced their weapons in a flash and took them all prisoner, binding them and leaving them behind some nearby rocks, before making off with the boats. As GM, I was a little surprised the PCs let the sentries live, but whatever. 😛

After a bit of discussion—which pleased me not to take all night—the former-crew ended up taking two of the boats and rowing out ahead, taking cover in the darkness and waiting for the signal to approach, while the PCs took the third and rowed straight up to the brig, again pretending to be new recruits. I rolled 6d6 for the number of pirates aboard the two ships, and the PCs spent a Planning Point to reduce that number by 1d6, resulting in twenty; around half of them had muskets to hand, the rest cutlasses. La Cage was also aboard, arguing with the men over something-or-other.

As the PCs’ boat passed under the brig’s stern, Ronnke’s character slipped into the water and climbed up to the open gallery windows. They had spent another Planning Point to have an “inside man” disable the rudder—owing to my introduction of Hans Olof and Chwengwe, the players declared the inside-man to be a short, round fellow, wearing blue and white and whistling a lot. Once Ronnke’s character had entered the gallery, the inside-man handed him a dry pistol, while he reloaded one of his.

niccage-piratesI gave La Cage’s men a Reaction check against the newcomers aboard; I interpreted the “Bad” result as the pirates being unappreciative of the the interruption. But they also failed a Perception check to notice the ruse, so I declared Partial Surprise; the PCs won the initiative, and the pirates froze—only one round, though. The PCs went immediately to work butchering them mercilessly, with some minor, flashy heroics combined with some surprise Crit-fails/successes to make things a little more interesting. La Cage fell back across to the McGuffin to regroup but took a nasty spill running down from a cannon and face-planted on deck; Andricus’ character ended up stabbing him twice at random hit-locations: once through the back, the other through his manhood—this was actually unscripted. 😀 The fight lasted around seven seconds, with the enemy casualties a bit over half, the other half choosing to surrender.

Afterward, the signal was given for the old crew to join them. Some of the pirates were recruited to assist as well, and both ships were readied to depart, in no hurry since the pirates were no longer a threat.


The experiment worked out well enough. I managed to craft a decent night’s entertainment from scratch in the allotted week’s time, and probably had enough time to spare that, if I had wanted to spread it out over multiple sessions, I probably could have done more. Now I know, for me, it can be done. There were a few rules bits that I probably could have worked out beforehand, but that was pretty minor. My pacing was spot on; ended exactly when I intended. I was actually a bit surprised that the combat went pretty smoothly and quickly despite the numbers, though that was helped by only having four players to manage. I was also pretty happy with this second playtest of the Planning Points concept; this will undoubtedly be used again.

While I had already been considering a regular age-of-sail campaign, I don’t have any intention of it being a sequel/prequel to this one at all, though some of the characters or ships might certainly reappear in some form or another.

Universe Reaction


AKA “The Universe hates/loves me”

Some time ago, I ran a Traveller one-shot that focused on a race-against-time to complete a rush-job. But as GM, I dislike arbitrating little things like how long someone has to stand in the queue at the bank, and in the case of this one-shot, it feels a bit like GM “cheating” anyway. So I came up with the concept of the Universe Reaction Check, to circumvent my arbitration-guilt. It works like this:

First, you mentally ask the question, “What is it the PCs are trying to do right now?” Then you figuratively turn to the Universe and ask if it will help or hinder their efforts, at which point you roll (for GURPS) an unmodified Reaction Check (B560) and consult the appropriate Request for Aid entry for the answer, as if it were an intelligent being with the power to smooth things along or get in the way. Simple.

In the case of the aforementioned one-shot, I translated this effect into minutes/hours/etc. of delay or acceleration of their timetable—because that’s what was at stake (a “base” time-increment will be required, though, to use it this way). But the effects would probably differ in other situations based on the PCs’ intentions. For example, if some post-apocalypse PCs are scrounging through some ruins for food, a “helpful Universe” would mean that some food is available at that location (the amount dependent on how helpful the Universe is feeling), and an “unhelpful Universe” would mean there is none to be found, or worse, an ambush awaits—this might be independent of whether or not the PCs are able to find that food, only indicating how much is available to be found. As some of the other GMs in both of my groups have started to use Universe Reactions in their games, I’ve seen it used during chases to determine if “suitable terrain” exists for a stunt. As it is, the concept is widely adaptable to any number of situations, but the more industrious GM could also build out more situation-specific Reaction tables for greater detail or less improvisation of effects.

Of course, the standard GURPS Reaction system allows for modifiers to the check, and that can still be incorporated. In the Traveller one-shot, a PC with Bad Luck insisted on penalizing those checks in his case. Conversely, “good” Luck is really just a favorable Reaction result, so one could reasonably treat is as an Influence success against the Universe. There’s no reason one couldn’t assign modifiers based on PCs “karmic” status, or add cumulative penalties as the adventure progresses to increase the stakes. Using GURPS Action 2, BAD could sensibly be applied as well.

Lastly, it is easily possible to use the same concept in other game systems, either using the GURPS check/table as-is or a similar mechanic from whatever system is being used.